When Dr. Evil Occupies the Corner Office

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Is your boss a psychopath?

Don’t laugh. The problem is more pervasive than you might think. According to British journalist Jon Ronson, author of The Psychopath Test, less than 1% of the general population consists of psychopaths, which Ronson defines as those with “no remorse and a total lack of empathy.” But the proportion goes up to as much as 4% for top business executives.

“So you are four times more likely to find a powerful psychopath than a walking around psychopath,” Ronson said in an interview today with Madeleine Brand of Southern California public radio station KPCC.

[EXPAND More]Ronson, citing a checklist of traits that are typical to psychopaths, explained that someone who merits this label is often charismatic and wants to be liked so that he or she can manipulate others. At the same time, he or she was very probably a bully in school.

“I’ll ask them how it felt to be a bully. And they’ll say, ‘It felt good,’” Ronson explained. “I’ll ask them, when you think back on it now, how does it feel? And they will say ‘Yeah, it still feels good.’”

Psychopaths can put this combination of bullying and charisma to potent use. “They can seem impressive. . . . People are dazzled,” says one expert in Ronson’s book. “So, yeah, the real trouble starts when one makes it in mainstream society.”

As we’ve notedPeter Drucker was always wary of charismatic leaders. “Indeed, charisma becomes the undoing of leaders,” he wrote. “It makes them inflexible, convinced of their own infallibility, unable to change.”

Meantime, to try to get deeply into the minds of employees is simply an abuse of power. A manager’s power “must never be allowed to become personal power over people, let alone power to manipulate, to ‘adjust’ or to make over personality,” Drucker wrote in Landmarks of Tomorrow. “It makes no difference whether abuse of the manager’s inherent power is hidden or in the open, whether it is brute oppression or affable manipulation of consent. . . . It is abuse, if not despotism, for a manager to aim at power rather than at responsible performance.”

How about you? Have you ever worked for a true psychopath—and what was that like? [/EXPAND]